Community Portrait: Always inventive J. Randall Smith breaks some rules

By: Story and photo Michael Kirby
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In his hands an ordinary bag of clay becomes a fine art sculpture. Paint and canvas become a beautiful painting. Charcoal, pencils and paper turn into an enchanting rendering. With an airbrush his work is creatively whimsical. J. Randall Smith is an artist, a title that not only describes what he does but who he is. Throughout his career Smith has worked in many mediums of artistic endeavor before finding three-dimensional sculpture to be captivating, personally fulfilling, challenging and utilizes everything he has learned in a lifetime of study. Smith grew up in the Auburn area and graduated from Placer High School in 1968. He attended the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland with the desire to become a high school or college art instructor. In college, Smith’s talents leaned toward the commercial art field and in 1971 Smith left school one semester shy of graduation, marrying his wife Catherine, and was hired by KCRA TV in Sacramento as an assistant art director. In 1979 Smith was hired by the No. 1 national CBS affiliate, WCCO in Minneapolis, at the time 29 and the youngest art director in the industry working all over the eastern United States. “I traveled a lot and had experiences and opportunities I will never forget during that time of my career,” Smith said. But the constant travel required by his job kept him from his young family more than he wanted, so they moved back to Auburn in 1982. Smith opened Blue Quail Studio, creating many types of commercial artwork including airbrushed illustrations, corporate logos, brochures and advertising design. In 1993 Smith was hired by The Ad Group in Auburn as senior art director, a position he held until his career took an unexpected turn into three-dimensional sculpture. In 1997 friend and fellow Auburn clay artist Larry Ortiz convinced Smith to take his night class as a way to unwind from the rigors and stress of commercial art and have some fun. “Larry said, ‘Why don’t you take a night class to just kind of chill a bit, work some of that stress out by throwing clay?’” Smith recalled. “I put him off for a good six months, but in that first class, touching and feeling the clay, I felt I could really do something with this.” Smith excelled with clay sculpture and in 1999 he had a small studio established in the ARTS Building, producing clay sculpture and having some success at selling his work. Smith soon became known for his Raku clay sculpture and was showing regularly on the local art scene. During a show one of his pieces, a horse sculpture, was knocked off its display pedestal and destroyed, breaking into many pieces. Heartbroken but creatively optimistic, Smith re-glazed the broken shards and reassembled the horse into a sculpture more intriguing than the original. “I think I’ve got something here,” he said. Smith’s new piece was a changing point in his career. “People said here’s a guy who does a beautiful sculpture then breaks it,” Smith said. He soon received regional and national attention for his broken art sculpture pieces showing in high-end galleries in Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Palm Desert. In 2000 Smith took a leap of faith, leaving the commercial art field for the world of professional sculpture. He has since been commissioned to do many sculptures in bronze and clay and recently completed a major three-year public art project in Folsom’s new retail development, Palladio. The project includes six 12-foot blue herons and six 12-foot horses made of high-end sculptural resin installed as centerpieces. Smith also designed the fountain in the development. With this major commission completed, Smith is now back in the local art scene currently showing for the first time in four years at the ARTS Building in Auburn. Every step, every twist and turn in Smith’s 40 years in the art field has led him to the very place he is now, a place he enjoys. “Over my career, my mediums may have changed but not the soul of my work,” he said.